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blog • Resource

Deep Dive: How To Read Board Papers

Ria Patel

03 March 2021

Today, Ria's journey to develop my young trusteeship skills begins! "As an aspiring young trustee myself, I have a feeling of intrigue, but uncertainty. I’m looking forward to learning more, but I’m not quite sure what to expect as I do my research. So, I thought I’d start with an ‘easier’ topic: How to read board papers."

A board paper is a document that contains key information relating to agenda points and decisions needing to be made in a board meeting, which can be general or more specific. Board papers form an official record, alongside the minutes.

The problem of not fully understanding a board paper is a frequent problem area for young or new trustees. It’s a familiar situation: you’ve ‘read’ the paper, you’ve looked at the agenda, but you’re not quite sure you understand it.

Questions I Aim to Understand After the Process:

  • What is the aim of board papers?
  • How do you read a board paper to understand it?
  • How to read board papers in a time-effective manner?
  • Why do I just not understand a paper sometimes?

So How Did I Go About Researching?

Firstly, I tried typing ‘how read to board papers’ into well-known trustee-related organisations but that did not return a lot of useful results. So, I turned to a helpful friend: the search engine.

One of the articles I came across was this article which highlighted the importance of board papers. Board papers allow for briefing material relevant to the agenda to be communicated prior to meetings, allowing for decisions to be made in the meeting, with the board paper in mind. I think when reading a board paper it’s important to know it’s aim, which will be different for each board paper as decisions needing to be made in each meeting are likely to differ. In order to understand the aim, relating headlines in the paper to the agenda may be helpful.

Another article I found was this LinkedIn Article. Although it's talking about board papers from a business point of view, it mentions the structure of a board paper. This varies between charities, but often the board paper may have points relating to an overview of the charity, finances, strategy, risks, discussion items and any other business, with possible decisions needing to be made throughout.

Finally, I actually thought of what skills I already have. For example, as a university student I often have to read academic papers, and I thought about how skills I use there are transferable to digesting board papers too. For example, you would start by reading the summary to begin with. In addition, one technique is reading the first and last sentence of a paragraph, and only continuing to read the whole paragraph if it is necessary. Techniques like this are supposed to aid understanding, whilst also being time-efficient and making a large amount of text manageable, although they may not work for everyone. A slightly lengthier method of reading a paper is written here.

What did I find out?

I think that most importantly, reading to understand a board paper is hard. It is a skill and so developing it takes practise.

We should recognise that some information may not be essential, and it’s okay to skim read. Techniques that students may use to read academic papers, may be useful here, like I mentioned above. This will likely mean less time is spent reading words, without understanding the context.

It’s important to think critically and creatively whilst reading, so you capture a complete picture of the information you are presented with. And remember to take a few notes. This allows you to engage in discussion in the board meeting, as notes will prompt you to recall key points.

In addition, I learnt that lack of standardisation in the charity sector, especially in terms of writing board reports, makes it difficult to have a standardised way to read and understand board papers. This is for a number of reasons, including charities having their own aims and values, for example, one charity may value its relationships with stakeholders more greatly than others. Another reason may be differences in size and experience of the charity as well as the board.

One solution that may help with this is to check if your board has a standardised way of reporting board papers, and check if you understand this method. If not, you could ask a board member about how to navigate the standardised method. Although asking questions can be scary, it’s often important to know factors like this. It also helps to create an enriching environment for other board members who may have similar questions, so that you can all develop together.

Finally, remember if you do not understand, not all the onus is on you! I think there’s also something to be said about effective board reporting. Poor reporting can lead to poor understanding, but it’s worth noting that “board papers are often prepared by non-board members who may not be familiar with the board’s requirements”. Because people’s writing styles are different, some people find specific writing styles easier to understand than others, so board writers should aim to convey the focus with clarity. If they aren’t written clearly, it takes up time in time-precious board meetings, meaning the meetings aren’t as effective as possible. This is something that current research has been questioning, with many “organisations of all sizes and sectors believed their board packs are too long, insufficiently forward-looking, and too focused on operational rather than strategic issues and on internal rather than external developments.”

What can boards and board paper writers do to make it easier?

With this considered, there are set things that boards can do collectively, to eliminate challenges to effective board reporting, making it easier to read and understand board papers.

  • Develop a standardised template, and train people in how to use and interpret it.
  • Ensure board papers are circulated on time
  • Use simple language to aid accessibility.
  • If jargon is used, ensure it is defined.
  • If you have time, have a look into ICSA’s cost calculator.

The board is responsible for providing directions on content and format of board reports, so if board papers are too difficult to read, the board may want to communicate this to management.

What’s Next?

Next, I’ll be meeting with the Deep Dive Learning Group to discuss the topic of reading a board paper, with the aim of creating a podcast. Then, I’ll write a follow up blog, which will include my top tips on how to read a board paper, summarise answers to my questions outlined above, as well as some useful insights from the discussion with the Deep Dive Learning Group.

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